Agriculture / Article / Environment / Livelihoods / Policy / Poverty

To end poverty without wrecking the environment, put people first—New series by Nathanael Johnson

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Nathanael Johnson, a talented food writer at Grist, a non-profit environmental news and commentary site based in Seattle, has published a thoughtful special series of eight articles around a question seldom looked at squarely in the eye—that is: How can we eliminate absolute poverty from the world without destroying the environment in the process?

Helpfully, Johnson provides some solutions and best practices, and draws out some principles from them, showing how humanity just might protect people and the planet both. Unusually for an environmentalist, he recommends we ‘put people first’

Excerpts from his new series follow (emphases added), but readers are encouraged to go to the Grist site and read the whole series. The landing page where you’ll find links to all eight articles in the series is here.


‘. . . The escalator out of poverty runs on fossil fuels and forests. There’s overwhelming evidence on this point. Every affluent country, including the United States, cut down its forests to achieve its early economic prosperity. Southeast Asia is following our lead. . . .

‘Can we end poverty without wrecking the planet? That’s what I set out to discover in a six-month investigation. I focused on agriculture, because 70 percent of the 700 million people living in extreme poverty across the globe are farmers, and no country has reduced poverty on a large scale without a corresponding investment in agriculture.

‘The answer I found is that there are no perfect solutions. There’s always some tradeoff between alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. But there are good solutions: If we are smart, we can set our priorities to trade a little carbon for a lot of prosperity . . . .

—Nathanael Johnson, How do we fight poverty without wrecking the planet? Introduction to a series ‘The Poverty Solution: Put People First’, Grist, 15 Dec 2016.


‘. . . For the one in 10 people around the world living on less than $2 a day, life is an emergency. Every day, poverty kills an estimated 15,000 children under the age of 5.

‘The world’s ambulance is growth. To save those kids, countries need higher incomes, more medical clinics, modern water pipes, and sewage treatment plants.

‘Switch on the sirens and go screaming down the superhighway of economic growth, however, and the world will spew out enough greenhouse gas emissions to put millions of lives at risk from pollution and climate change. There’s no way poor countries are going to stop and wait until they figure out a zero-carbon route out of poverty—and they shouldn’t. . . .

‘How do you go from growing beans and corn and chopping down your forests to manufacturing computer chips and leading eco tours? What are the keys to this green structural transformation?

  • Investment in agriculture . . . .
  • A strong safety net . . . .
  • Foster the development of institutions . . . .
  • Be green but not militant. . . .

‘All the reasons listed above boil down to governance. . . .

[Costa Rica is] doing something right: healing the environment by helping the people.

If more countries follow something like Costa Rica’s path, there’s real hope that people around the world could make it onto the ambulance out of immiserating poverty while also improving the world for future generations.

—Nathanael Johnson, Costa Rica modernized without wrecking the environment. Here’s how. Part 1 of a series ‘The Poverty Solution: Put People First’, Grist, 15 Dec 2016.


‘. . . “Everyone knows that the spectacular Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the agricultural revolution that preceded it. And what was this agricultural revolution? It was based mainly on the introduction of the turnip.”. . .

‘Rural investment allows lots of farmers to build up some wealth and contribute to a growing economy.

Chicken farms are springing up in Nigeria to feed Lagos, Timmer pointed out. That means that there are jobs raising chickens, butchering the animals, driving poultry trucks, cooking chicken, and selling it at groceries.

This kind of economic growth—flowing back and forth between rural and urban—creates a dense ecosystem of businesses, which can be a lot more resilient, and spread wealth more equitably, than attempts to skip straight to an industrial economy.

The problem with investing in rural farmers is that it’s difficult to do at scale. There are nearly 100 million small farmers in India alone. It’s really freaking hard—and expensive—to meet them where they are.

—Nathanael Johnson, What the humble turnip can teach us about economic growth. Part of a series ‘The Poverty Solution: Put People First’, Grist, 15 Dec 2016.


. . . [W]hen it comes to energy and resource use, yeah, environmentalists should swallow hard and cheer as poor countries build factories, power plants, and highways. . . .

When it comes to farming (and clearing land for more farms), growing prosperity could shrink the human footprint on the land, and therefore reduce emissions. It’s good all around. . . . Basically, when farmers have more resources, they can grow more food. That’s what has happened around the world over the last 50 years. . . .

[I]f history is any guide, countries only achieve a mass exodus from poverty when rural farmers improve their productivity. . . .  This suggests that ending poverty must be a central focus, if not the central focus, of environmental efforts. . . .

—Nathanael Johnson, How food, forests, and people are connected, in 10 charts. Part 2 of a series ‘The Poverty Solution: Put People First’, Grist, 16 Dec 2016.


No one will ever make their children go hungry to save the environment.

‘And so, nonprofits dedicated to protecting animals and ecosystems have started focusing on people—building health clinics, sponsoring business development, or advocating for payments to rural communities—in order to protect natural areas. . . .

‘The “leave no trace” wilderness ethic is great for middle-class backpackers in a national park, but that ethic just doesn’t work for people who depend on the land for their sustenance. Fighting poverty is hard enough on its own. It’s virtually impossible if we stipulate that the process must leave no mark on the environment. . . .

‘[A]ll sides agree that alleviating poverty is what makes conservation possible. When people don’t have to struggle for survival—when they have adequate healthcare and the opportunity to get a good education—they can take care of the environment. . . .

—Nathanael Johnson, The case for putting people before nature. Part 3 of a series ‘The Poverty Solution: Put People First’, Grist, 19 Dec 2016.


‘. . . Across the world, there are more than 550 million small farmers, and most live in communities on the cusp of modernization, like Ban Umung. The path these communities follow will have a big impact on the global climate. . . .

Modernization decreases the amount of land required to feed a person, but it dramatically increases the amount of energy people consume.

‘. . . [W]e can’t expect people to simply be satisfied with less. Most rural villagers, like most city dwellers, want modernity . . . . [T]hey do want education, advanced medical care, and indoor bathrooms and modern sanitation systems. And as people get richer, they tend to consume more electricity, more gasoline, more meat and dairy. . . .

In 1981, 58 percent of people in Southeast Asia were living on less than $1.25 a day. In 2010, that figure was 14 percent. Extreme poverty is declining fast.

—Nathanael Johnson and Alain Kilajian, What do small-scale farmers want for the future and for their kids? Part 5 of a series ‘The Poverty Solution: Put People First’, Grist, 22 Dec 2016.


‘. . . Evidence suggests that there is not just a moral, but a practical imperative to fight poverty.

‘When people have to make short-term, urgent decisions to survive, the natural world suffers. The poverty that forces such decisions renders both land and people vulnerable to exploitation. Where there is prosperity, by contrast, there are institutions to protect natural resources. . . .

If you look closely at the countries that have most gracefully passed through this transformation—like Costa Rica—it’s clear that they have done so by investing in small farmers and weaving social safety nets.

‘Unbridled capitalism cannot accurately value nature, and does not recognize the property rights of the people who depend upon the natural world for survival. All of humanity depends upon natural systems, of course—but it’s the poor living off the land who have the most to lose from their destruction. . . .

When people have freedom—freedom from hunger, disease, and oppression, the liberties necessary to take the long view—they can protect the resources they depend upon, not to mention the creatures and landscapes they love. . . .

The faster poverty declines, the faster the natural systems that support human lives will rebound—and, most importantly, the freer those lives will be.

—Nathanael Johnson, Can capitalism, conservation, and cosmopolitanism coexist? Here’s what I learned. Conclusion of a series ‘The Poverty Solution: Put People First’, Grist, 23 Dec 2016.

Follow Nathanael Johnson on Twitter: @SavorTooth.

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